Hammett: The Lost Interview

For Biography Month, what could Terry Zobeck dig up, with which to startle and amaze? How about a forgotten interview with Hammett, filled with a wealth of biographical detail?

Here’s Terry:


Hammett didn’t do many major interviews, other than Eve Sanderson’s piece in the January 1932 issue of The Bookman and James Cooper’s Daily Express interview for March 22, 1957.

I can’t recall another one.

Until now.

Our good friend John Squires alerted us last year to an amazing website containing thousands of microfilm images of historic New York state newspapers, and this past weekend I went diving into the archives in search of Hammett material. I was looking for any evidence of syndicated appearances of Hammett’s work — starting in 1934, Hammett entered into a deal with King Features Syndicate as part of his promotion of the Secret Agent X-9 comic strip. Later he had a similar syndication arrangement with the Hearst papers.

I did indeed find several of his stories appearing in various New York papers through the mid-1950s — and more on these later.

But the most astonishing thing I found was a previously undocumented interview.

Nineteen twenty-nine was perhaps the most momentous year of Hammett’s career. At the beginning of the year, his first hardcover novel, Red Harvest, was published. In July, The Dain Curse followed on its heels. In September, Black Mask began serializing The Maltese Falcon. And by October, Hammett had begun writing The Glass Key. Not a bad year for an ex-detective and one-time lunger.

By October, he had arrived in New York City, after leaving San Francisco. Sometime shortly after landing in New York he sat for an interview with Helen Herbert Foster of the Brooklyn Eagle Magazine (A Magazine of Personalities) — a weekly supplement of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

The interview, titled “House Burglary Poor Trade,” occupies a single page and runs for about 1,300 words; about two-thirds direct quotes from Hammett.

The three paragraphs that purportedly recount Hammett’s Pinkerton’s cases are nearly verbatim from his March 1923 Smart Set piece “From the Memoirs of a Private Detective.” I suspect Hammett told her to just quote the stories she liked, while Don believes he just rattled the lines off as schtick, from repeated telling of the tales. Practically one-liners. (Lending credence to Don’s guess, Hammett tells Ms Foster: “This is what you wanted to hear, wasn’t it? All reporters want to hear such experiences from detectives. And these are authentic enough, goodness knows.”)

Hammett speaks of what it takes to be a good sleuth and the impact it has on his writing:

For being a professional busybody requires more energy, more dogged patience than you’d suppose. I got so tired of it that I just had to give it up, though I have a flair for that kind of thing. There never was anything lacking in the matter of my curiosity. It’s not an easy business. A good detective is quite a person. He is a type that has always intrigued me. And for that reason I never subordinate his personality to the plot of my story.

What I try to do is to write a story about a detective rather than a detective story. Keeping the reader fooled until the last possible moment is a good trick and I usually try to play it, but I can’t attach more than secondary importance to it. The puzzle isn’t so interesting to me as the behavior of the detective attacking it.

Hammett then provides a lengthy summation of his life growing up in Baltimore and Philadelphia and the string of jobs he had, noting “I was often fired, I’ll admit that. But always most amiably.” He concludes this section with how he became a detective:

I was attached to a national agency as an operative, before and after the war, in the East, Northwest and on the Pacific Coast. I was a pretty good sleuth, but a bit overrated because of the plausibility with which I could explain away my failures, proving them inevitable and no fault of mine.

Later, he returns to this topic, claiming that, “Thanks to my ability to write pleasing and convincing reports, my reputation was always a little more than I deserved.”

Ms Foster also picks up on Hammett’s keen sense of humor. She observes that “When Mr. Hammett speaks you just have to watch your step. You have the feeling he’s setting traps for you to fall into. And maybe he is. He’s cynically funny though one of the most genial people you’d want to meet.”

The biggest surprise for me was learning that Hammett declared himself to be “. . . an artist, or nearly. That is, I have a tendency to fritter away time over a drawing board trying to make black marks come out beautiful on white paper, which they seldom, if ever, do.” I’d love to have an original Hammett hanging on the wall.

I sent a scan of the interview to Hammett biographer Richard Layman and he replied that he did not know of it.

I checked all the biographies, Hammett’s selected letters, all of Layman’s various reference works. Nothing. The only evidence of any prior knowledge of this interview that I have found in print comes from the quote attributed to Hammett at the beginning of William F. Nolan’s Dashiell Hammett: A Casebook (1969), concerning the dogged nature of the Continental Op:

“I see him. . .  a little man going forward day after day through mud and blood and death and deceit — as callous and brutal and cynical as necessary — toward a dim goal, with nothing to push or pull him to it except he’s been hired to reach it.” — Dashiell Hammett, on the Continental Op.

However, Nolan does not reference it as coming from Ms Foster’s interview, which it surely does. And it does not get a citation in his checklist in the back — in what would be the first of many biographies for Hammett.

Perhaps that lone quote was copied and passed on by someone, even as knowledge of the whole interview was lost.

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